After the badly conceived and plotted end to Series 7, where Matt Smith’s Doctor legacy was marred by Clara, a companion who was less a person than a plot device, Moffat, for all his bluster, seemed to take all our complaints to heart. Between casting Peter Capaldi, an actor with the gravitas and the standing in the BBC to force changes he didn’t like the scripts, and Moffat’s own determination to prove the haters wrong, Series 8 turned out to be one of the best seasons across the board. I don’t mean “best” in the sense that the stories were amazing. There are many Who fans that did not like the overall conceit, and the lack of magical thinking, not to mention the grounding of Clara on Earth. But in terms of quality story telling, Series 8 was, on the whole, above average from beginning to end. That carried over into this season. Whether or not you liked the four two-part episodes this season, each one was above average, and those first six episode held together in a way I have not seen a Doctor Who season achieve ever. Certainly not since the show rebooted.
The Doctor: But this doesn’t make any sense!
I say all this because I want to make it clear just how incredibly disappointing this week’s episode was. This episode wasn’t just bad. It didn’t work. It didn’t work like “Clara Blew In On A Leaf” didn’t work. The result was bad. It was “The Idiot’s Lantern” level bad. (Another Gatiss story, for the record.) And in being as terrible as it as, it broke a season and a half’s hot streak that Moffat had been on since Capaldi arrived.
That’s not to say there weren’t good ideas. Take, for instance, the world building of the Indo-Japanese 38th century. Yes, I’m sure geologists are just as irritated at the nonsensical idea that there was some great cataclysm that made Mongolia disappear and magically shoves India and Japan together, but whatever. (Blame “Frontios.”) Another good idea: the concept of a machine that eradicates sleep. The scene where the Morpheus ad played was the highlight of the episode, with the implications of how this technology could be used and abused in a capitalist society where the dollar rules all was hinted at. Add that to the creepy holographic Chordettes “Mr. Sandman” song, and there was something there that could have worked. An episode where the moral implications of this Beggars In Spain type society were front and center would have resulted in a fantastic episode. Instead we ended up with…this.
The Doctor: “Every night we dive into that inky pool, into the arms of Morpheus. Every morning we wake up and wipe the sleep from our eyes. That keeps us safe, safe from the monsters inside.”
Problem A: The Ten Little Indians structure. On paper, not a bad idea for something that’s supposed to be cobbled together through “found footage.” After all, if everyone is dead or jetted via TARDIS, how else do you find out what happened? This is supposed to be a horror episode, where characters are dying, and we don’t know who or what is killing them. It starts out much like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, even putting the false death (Rassmussan) as the second one, just like the novel. The problem though is that this conceit runs completely counter to the way the found footage was introduced. We already know Rassmussan is alive, and his death is fake. Therefore there’s no mystery, no terror. Just…nothing.
Problem B: The characters. Specifically, the Grunt. I’m sorry, you cast the first transgender actor in the history of the show, and you cast them in a role…where characters outright sneer at them for being not clearly gendered. A nameless character (474) who is so dumb they can’t construct sentences properly, and whose role in the story is to sacrifice themselves for the character who mistreated them the entire time? How about no. Not that the rest of the characters were better. One of the striking things about “Under The Lake/Before the Flood” is how well-developed those characters were, and how much I cared about every last one of them surviving by the end of the first hour. Here? These were fodder. Straight “I don’t care about them” fodder. You don’t know the song? Whatever, dead. You stand around mansplaining how terrible the 38th century is, before treating the Grunt like crap? No, don’t care that you died either, though I wish the Grunt had pushed you into the flames. As for their Captain, she survived right? I lost track. I didn’t care.
Captain Nagata: “So what happened?”
The Doctor: “From the beginning of time? That’s a long story.”
Problem C: The monsters. Seriously, the monsters were eye gunk?
When the Doctor first postulated that a third of the way in, I was like, no. No, that’s not it. That’s his first theory, it will be proved wrong. There’s no way that’s the answer. There’s no way. There’s… Seriously? We have this moron Rassmussan character grandstanding for Eyegunk Monsters? I mean, you can’t even take that seriously. It’s not even creepy. It’s just dumb. It was like a parody of the Mad Scientist who just wants his mindless creation to grow and feed. It was laughable. The man was arguing for EYEGUNK.
Problem D: The Found Footage Concept. This could have been a good idea. An episode where the Doctor and Clara have already left, and we the audience are watching back what happened. That sounds cool, right? But I was expecting a lot more interesting shots. Perhaps this is because I haven’t seen a lot of “found footage concept” horror movies. (Actually, I’ve only ever seen The Blair Witch Project, when it comes to that genre.) We got a little of what I was thinking of, like the first person shooter cam. We got a few shots from the security cameras on the station. But I was thinking we would see shots where the camera wasn’t actually focused on the actors, like a helmet that rolled away and was shooting into a corner, so the action was happening half off-screen and at funny angles, which would help with not actually seeing the monsters. But no, we didn’t. Instead most of the episode was filmed straight on, just like one does in a regular episode. One moment where Capaldi breaks the fourth wall does not a found footage episode make. The only difference between this and any other episode was that it had a “video footage” filter over it and annoying digital blip roll type stuff around the edges. What was the point then?
The Doctor: “That’s how they roll in the 38th century.”
The show tried to find a reason. And to be fair, that moment when Captain Nagata said “…we don’t have helmet cams,” was super creepy. But then when it came time to explain it, it all just fell apart. Our eyes are cameras? What? No. “This doesn’t make any sense!” yells Capaldi as they run for the TARDIS. No, it doesn’t. Trying to get all meta and babbling on about “compulsive storytelling” and “a proper climax with the big one at the end” isn’t going to excuse that. Nor was the tacked on ending that what we were watching was supposed to be the Doctor Who equivalent of the video from The Ring. It was like Moffat and Gatiss got halfway through filming the episode, realized it didn’t work, and the script rewrite was them taking the script index cards, ripping them up into tiny pieces and throwing them up into the air and yelling CONFETTI!
With only one more episode to go before the two-part finale and Jenna Coleman takes her leave, let us hope that was merely an outlier. Next week’s return of Rigsy from last season, along with Maisie Williams, will hopefully put the season back on track.